In the bad old days, neoliberals bemoaned state meddling in the economy with a mobile army of mixed metaphors. Public corporations like the state-owned car giant British Leyland were ‘lame ducks’ that would ‘go to the wall’ were they not ‘featherbedded’ and ‘bloated’ by public subsidy. In the 1980s privatisation bonanza, state assets were stripped and sold back to the public at a discount, on the plea of serving the consumer, rather than producer interests. Now, fuddled by talk of ‘stakeholding’, we have got to the point where public policy defers to private producers instead.

David Willetts’s open access policy on publishing research offers a case in point.

Academic publishing certainly needed a kick up the Khyber: the terms that publishers extort from academic authors make the mere extraction of surplus value look almost quaint. Hi-ed authors write articles for nothing, which then get vetted by unpaid referees and, if accepted, edited by unpaid editors. The grateful author then signs over the rights – gratis, obviously – to the publishers. If, later on, you want to reuse your own unremunerated work, you have to pay a copyright fee (one publisher recently quoted me £700 to reprint a modified journal article as a book chapter). Apart from all that, the clinching argument against the status quo is that the public who fund university research shouldn’t hit a paywall when they want to access its results.

This absurd and iniquitous double-payment can now be remedied by open access – making research results available to all by e-publishing. In June, the government, university administrators and publishing combines arrived at the ecstatic cahoots of the Finch report. Janet Finch, with approving noises from Willetts, opted for ‘gold’ rather than ‘green’ open access: gold OA makes hard copy and electronic versions instantly available to library users; green OA requires authors to archive their papers in a repository which becomes accessible after an embargo period, the assumption being that the latter will be linked in some way to the paper’s commercial half-life.

With gold OA, journal publishers are paid by academic authors rather than subscribers, from a publications fund furnished by their university. Why slum it with green when you can go for gold? Publishing ‘stakeholders’ – giants like Elsevier and Springer – are happy, because open access won’t put paid to their blue-chip profit margins. Instead of universities’ library budgets, the cash will come from funds earmarked to pay an author’s ‘article processing charge’: but a pound’s a pound, whichever pocket it comes from. The government likes the scheme, because e-publishing will permit university libraries’ budgets to be cut back against research monies used to fund OA. And university administrators – Finch is a former vice-chancellor – will love it, because the publication funds will offer a leash to control academics’ research activity, not just when publication is pending, but before the research is even done. Will future employment contracts include a copyright waiver so that the university can cream off ancillary income from faculty members’ intellectual property?

So the public gets access, the government saves money, university brass-hats get control, and publishers keep their profits. Given that authors, referees and editors don’t get paid, e-publishing means that academic journals can be produced for next to nothing. Currently, putting out journals as hard copy at least incurs paper and printing costs, but even those vanish when a journal goes electronic. No wonder know-biz is so profitable for publishers: in 2011 Elsevier made a profit of £768 million on revenues of £2.1 billion. Taxpayers will still cough up twice, first for the research, and then to fund the author-payment scheme that will give an indirect subsidy to private publishing houses.

Elsevier, Wiley and Springer (which already own many formerly independent university presses) command large and growing market share: 42 per cent of all journal articles were published by these three in 2008, while the next largest accounted for just 3 per cent. It’s not even as if Elsevier and the rest are UK-registered companies generating lots of lolly for the exchequer, or a big slab of added value. As a Deutsche Bank report noted in 2005, ‘if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40 per cent margins wouldn’t be available.’

Academics serving on the editorial boards of journals could decamp en masse, set up a URL with a duly modified title to avoid legal issues, and upload copy on a universal-access basis. This has already happened to some extent; but it may safely be predicted that universities will block it if they can.

In lampooning the idea that medicine was a need-based social good, the libertarian Robert Nozick imagined the practice of shmoctoring, which resembled doctoring, except that its aim was to make money for its practitioners. If one substitutes for medicine the good of knowledge – which can now be diffused at near-zero marginal cost – academic publishing offers a real-life case of shmoctoring in action. Helped by Finch, academic publishers will ride out the move to open access. After all, shmoctors are stakeholders, too.